Chicago Sun-Times: Not-so-naked truth: Indonesian Playboy's lingerie-clad freedom fighters strike a blow for T&A over Muslim hard-liners

The old ad campaign used to ask, “What kind of man reads Playboy?” An Indonesian man might, after Thursday’s dismissal of indecency charges against the editor of a Jakarta-produced version of Playboy there.

In this clash of sexual sensibilities between the West and Islam, the bunny won. Chicago-based Playboy called the decision proof that “there is a market for a high-quality men’s lifestyle magazine” in Indonesia.

The battle, though, served to illustrate tensions between two cultures as Western entertainment corporations try to expand while Islamic traditionalists push back.

“American popular culture challenges Islamism like no other force on the planet,” writes Sadanand Dhume, a scholar on Islam in Indonesia.

Indeed, when the verdict was read, Jakarta police with water cannons braced for trouble. “Do we have to wait until our wives and daughters are raped?” one of 200 protesters shouted in what turned out to be a peaceful demonstration.

The trial of Playboy Indonesia editor in chief Erwin Arnada began with about 100 bearded Islamists demanding “hang him, hang him!” The magazine’s Jakarta offices were attacked after Playboy Indonesia was launched last April, women picketed and models were harassed.

To Americans used to Playboy’s familiar fare of pneumatic T and A and sexually explicit Q and A, Playboy Indonesia may seem tame: It has no nudity. But in Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Islamic population, the magazine’s images of women in underwear are considered pornographic by the growing minority of Muslims who are hard-liners.

“It seems to me that this is about religious and political competition more than anything else,” said Malika Zeghal, an associate professor of the anthropology and sociology of religion at the University of Chicago. “It’s a struggle to dominate.”

On Thursday, a judge ruled that Indonesia Playboy is protected speech. Its Jakarta publisher licenses the Playboy name and controls its content.

Still, sexually charged materials can be seen as an invitation to the Islam-prohibited “zina,” or sex outside marriage, according to Ruediger Seesemann, a Northwestern University religion professor who holds a doctorate in Islamic studies.

“It undermines the morality and threatens the sexual order as it’s supposed to be according to Islam,” he said.

Islam isn’t necessarily anti-sexuality. The Prophet Muhammad spoke openly about sex, including recommending the best time of day to have it and the necessity for men to make sure it is pleasurable for women. “Muslims are encouraged to enjoy sex but it has to take place within the proper context” — within marriage, Seesemann said.

Pornography “commercializes sexuality, objectifies the human body, and undermines the sanctity of marriage,” added Ahmed Rehab, executive director of Chicago’s Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Playboy’s U.S. circulation is about 3 million, down from its 1972 tally of 7.1 million. The magazine’s 22 international editions broaden its trademark to help draw customers to its Web site, videos and other merchandise.

American publications see foreign markets as attractive because in many countries there is not the same level of Internet competition and advertisers are still more comfortable with the printed page, said magazine consultant Martin S. Walker.

Meanwhile, Playboy is fighting other male-focused “laddie” magazines for readers increasingly turning to the Internet. Playboy won in court in Jakarta, but the controversy illustrates how “it’s easy to cross the line” for Western publications, said Walker.

Copyright © 2007, Chicago Sun-Times